by Nathaniel Popkin
A month ago the Septa board voted to kill the system. Well not exactly a bullet to the heart. More like the way the American military likes to take care of the “world’s most dangerous terrorists:” the long, slow death by torture. Capital funds will be used to operate the system. That means what’s broken doesn’t get fixed; what’s planned never gets built, what’s worn out and faltering never gets replaced.
We have been here before. It was a time we refer to as “the bad old days,” which was followed immediately by the promise to never borrow from the capital budget to operate the system and the unveiling of the truth-in-advertising campaign “We’re getting there!”
Septa did; that’s the thing. Bridges were fixed. Buses were purchased, repurchased, and maintained like new; the El was replaced; regional rail cars built; Broad Street stations refurbished; the 25 year-old subway-surface cars cleaned and fixed with the tenacity of the guy across the street who scrubs the white walls on his 1981 powder blue Buick LeSabre.
None of this, of course, has been enough to reverse the ridership decline, but that’s a puzzle for the demographers more than anything. The fact is, despite it all, for an agency that covers 2,200 square miles with 160 routes providing nearly 300 million rides a year it performs more than adequately some of the time, which is more than we can say about almost any other government agency. In the main, bus drivers are friendly; only once in a while do you find one reading the sports page while he drives. And the bus routes penetrate nearly every corner of the city. There are service feats to surprise you: sixteen minutes to Manayunk from Market East; fifteen minutes to PHL Terminal A from University City; Liberty Bell to the Philadelphia Museum of Art door-to-door in nineteen minutes on the 38; and the myriad routes and transfers strung together that beat the car time only without all that carbon dioxide.
So why does Septa confound us? In part, this is a result of a “system” based on the ephemeral bus, on the lightly-marked bus stop and not, as in those great cities, on the fixed visual sensation of the subway. Two subway lines hardly make a great poster or t-shirt. 126 bus lines are like the spider web you crumple in your hand. Oh, and sometimes the waiting is unbearable. A doubling of the frequency of regional rail service– Marc Stier on these pages recommends turning this heavy rail to light rail as a way to dramatically increase speed and service- and the reopening of defunct stations across the breadth of the city effectively transform the system (think now of the spider web made of steel).
Still, for many Philadelphians, Septa would strangely not matter. It is this ambivalence– for example, we fail to assign transit routes to restaurant and culture listings (as is the norm in most cities) – which allows Septa to remain, as Marc says so eloquently, in siege mode, incapable of understanding that dedicated funding won’t come as a result of threats but from creating a vision, by building, planning, by reaching out to all of those across the political spectrum- in labor, the environmental movement, in energy policy, in economic development- to build its case. Instead, what we still get is silence. Phone calls unreturned, hysterical threats cast across the airwaves, Just you wait to see what happens when we’re gone.
We have no other choice but to cut service and raise fares, to steal from the capital budget, to deface our own service standards, to self-immolate just to prove…
No! Dear Septa! Listen to those of us who see in you the hope for this city’s future. You have no other choice but to lay before us a vision of a truly integrated transit system (at the very least using a single, coordinated clock!), that which would transform the function of the city and region, that which would prove we understand and are committed to a true and implicit urbanity, to a dramatic cut in the emissions of carbon dioxide, to prove that which you claim is true: Philadelphia is dependent on transit. Sell us your ideas for new lines, new facilities, new vehicles; allow us to make some suggestions. For once bring in a first-rate architect to design something: capture our attention and imagination. Stop threatening and don’t cut service. In fact, since the real average fare (factoring in senior citizen trips, student trips, transpass and trial pass trips) is not even close to the $1.30 it costs for a token, let alone the $2 cash fare, and since only a small minority of rides are paid for in cash, as my friend Peter Siskind, the Arcadia history professor, argues, don’t raise the cash fare. That’s a public relations blunder. Do the opposite: lower it! Better yet, do as I argued previously, quit charging riders and send the bill to Washington. (File it under innovative- and cheap- approaches to global warming.) Make it possible to love you. We want to. We really do.